Said Nachid

If we make an exception for the efforts of Ahmad al-Qubbanji and Abdolkarim Soroush,[1] everything that has been said about the noble Qur’ān from the death of the Messenger to the present-day has never once gone beyond what antiquity considered to be matters beyond dispute, or beyond its magical perceptions on the world, whereby the Qur’ān appeared to be the ‘word’, ‘language’ and ‘style’ of God, the explanation for its manifestation being one of the following:

-  that it is was recorded upon the Preserved Tablet[2] (according to Muslim jurisprudential discourse)

-  that God formulated it in conditions of emergency (according to the discourse of the Scholastics)

-  that it is overflowing with expressions and meanings of the Divine Essence (according to mystical and philosophical discourses).

In each of these, the Qur’ān is considered to be a ‘word’ issuing from God's ‘consciousness’, in every sense that that this could take (according to everyone else).

The Qur’ānic discourse is not the ‘word of God’ sent down from the invisible heavens

It is the same paradigm of antiquity which spurred both Muhammad Shahrour and Muhammad ‘Ābid al-Jabrī to maintain that the Qur’ān was not part of man’s historical heritage. This is an error of judgement, and actually an error of thinking.

In the introduction to his work The Book and the Qur’ān, Muhammad Shahrour states that “the book (meaning the Qur’ān) cannot be considered a part of our heritage, rather, ‘heritage’ is a relative term employed primarily for a specific era.”[3]

This is the same claim made by al-Jabrī in the first part of his Introduction to the Noble Qur’ān, where he writes:

We have stressed repeatedly that we do not consider the Qur’ān to be part of our heritage. We emphasise his point here again, and at the same time we also lay stress on what we said on previous occasions, that it is the totality of the methods for understanding the Qur’ān practised by the Muslims themselves, that constitutes the heritage.[4]

But even if Shahrour and al-Jabrī deal with it as an undisputable issue of documentary proof, yet a sound mind could not possibly allow the intellect to be deprived, like this, of the ability to challenge accepted certainties and take a new look at what constitutes authority. What Shahrour and al-Jabrī failed to realise is that we will never be able to go beyond the discourse of the ancient world and rescue Islam from its magical perceptions of the world, if we fail to pass on beyond the founding assumptions which inform the ancient world's viewpoint on the Qur’ān.

Muhammad ‘Ābid al-Jabrī: "The Qur’ān not part of  man’s historical heritage"

The Qur’ānic discourse is not the ‘word of God’ sent down, by chance or by design, from the invisible heavens, as the ancient religious paradigm would have it. It is, rather, the fruit of the mind’s capacity to reach up and make contact. But the ascent here – contrary to philosophy – is not something evidential but something conjecturally based on the imagination.

Prophethood, according to Abū Nasr al-Fārābī, is the most perfect stage a man can attain to by the force of the imagination[5] while, according to Baruch Spinoza, prophethood “does not require a mature intellect so much as a fertile imagination.”[6]

All of which means that Muhammad's Qur’ān is not the divine Revelation in its absolute application, nor is it a book authored by God and sent down from the celestial to the lower heaven, or down to the ears of the Messenger. Rather, it is the fruit of an imaginative effort undertaken by a sincere Messenger for the purpose of presenting and interpreting divine signals taken from a hierarchy of divine emanation. If these degrees of imaginative power vary depending upon circumstances, this is duly reflected in the Qur’ānic verses, and in the variation that exists in its expressive precision and rhetorical accomplishment. It is a variation that accounts for the two levels of Revelation which, as the Qur’ān demonstrates, are the āyāt muhkamāt (‘verses that are in themselves clear as to their significance’) which form the solid nucleus of the Qur’ān, and the āyāt mutashābihāt (‘verses expressed in a figurative manner’) which represent more fragile areas in Muhammad's Qur’ān.

Indeed this concept of the divine verses is broader than that of Muhammad's Qur’ān, which amounts to no more than the interpretation of some of these verses.

For the fact is that if the divine revelation were a matter of verses, these verses, according to the Qur’ānic definition, do not constitute a closed or sacralised text, nor do they form a catalogue of universal rulings and eternal commands. They are instead merely divine inspirations. Therefore the Revelation, according to the Qur’ānic description, and as Muhammad Iqbal expresses it, is ‘but one of the general prescriptions for existence’.[7]

Among His Signs are the Night and the Day, and the Sun and the Moon [Qur’ān XLI,37]

And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours [Qur’ān XXX,22]

Verily, in the alternation of the night and the day, and in all that Allah hath created, in the heavens and the earth, are signs for those who fear Him [Qur’ān X,6]

Some of these verses, signals and divine instructions are open to everyone to see and hear, while some others may only be comprehended through the force of the imagination. So the question here is this: are we able to say that the Qur’ānic discourse stands above history, above our human heritage, above the ancient world and above time and place, and thus forever contemporary to all ages and generations?

These verses, according to the Qur’ānic definition, do not constitute a closed or sacralised text

Specifically, or by way of inference, can we consider the political concepts and values contained there (such as obedience, pledges of allegiance, jizya-tax,[8] the shūrā,[9] the taking and distribution of booty and so on) as similarly contemporary to us?

It may seem an awkward question, but what makes it so is our habit of thinking of the Qur’ānic discourse as some sacred text expressing the absolute ‘rulings of God,’ irrespective of time and place. This is a cognitive mistake, and indeed a theological error.

As long as we imagine that Muhammad’s Qur’ān is a word issued or emanated directly from the Divine Essence, and sent down to us complete and whole in the literal sense, we will end up sanctifying every act of command that is found there by considering these, as we think, to be God's directives to mankind. The Qur’ānic discourse consequently turns from a devotional message into a series of eternal prescriptions that cancel out innovation and paralyse the will. In this way the Qur’ān becomes an obstacle to modernisation.

The problem, more properly, occurs whenever we think that the contrast between, on the one hand, the concepts of caliphate, pledging allegiance, the shūrā, the Imamate and obedience and, on the other hand, the concepts of democracy, elections, voting, pluralism and the rotation of power – is merely the contrast between a religious or Islamic conceptual system representing the content of divine revelation, and a civil or western conceptual system that represents the essence of western culture. By definition, such a contrast will appear to be one between the will of God and the will of western civilisation. This is also a mistake, and indeed an outright sin.

It is true that the Qur’ān employs these old, antiquated ideas in its communicative framework. However its employment is not an argument for possession or mastery, since there is no reason why the Qur’ān should merely have to make use of a concept for it become a religious, Islamic or Qur’ānic concept par excellence or be turned into some deep-rooted matter on which our identity depends. For the fact is that the innovation or reproduction of concepts is not the property of the religious arena or, more precisely, it is not the function of Qur’ānic discourse. Rather, the production of concepts was, and remains, the property of another cognitive field – one that, according to Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze[10], is exclusive to philosophy.

Spinoza: Prophethood “does not require a mature intellect so much as a fertile imagination"

Islam is a cognitive principle whose aim is to proclaim the oneness and the transcendence of the Divine Essence. Beyond this purpose all the issues of the Sharīʻa, its dealings, the penal system, the questions concerning hadd punishments, retribution, the division of inheritance, the fate of women, women's testimony, obedience to the ruler, the guardianship of the male spouse and all the concepts and perceptions contained in the ‘Islam of the text’ – are merely incidental and subsidiary interpretations of divine Islam. They fall within the context of speculation appropriate to the intellectual and emotional level of men in the ancient world.

The ancient world was not an everlasting world, there is no way that it could be. The destiny of all that exists, in the eloquent words of an elegiac Andalusian poet, is that ‘to everything that is completed there comes a diminution’.[11]

For as long as we fail to rise to a level whereby we are conscious of development which, as Heidegger stated, was the essence of existence, or the essence of the Divine spirit according to Hegel's premises, or indeed the essence of divinity itself according to the Qur’ān’s explicit description of God: Every day in (new) Splendour doth He (shine) [Qur’ān LV,29] – for as long as we fail to grasp the fact that development, change, transformation and substitution are all parts of a divine dispensation, lamenting for the world of the ancestors simply turns into an obsessional neurosis capable of producing nothing else but senseless violence and gratuitous death.

The difference, on the one hand, between the concepts of caliphate, pledging allegiance, obedience, the shūrā, the Imamate and the community and, on the other hand, between democracy, pluralism, elections, voting and the rotation of power, does not lie in the fact that there are concepts that are to be considered religious, divine, metaphysical or Islamic, or that these apply only to Islam or are to be described as ‘Islamic’, as opposed to civil, objective, human, western concepts that are to apply exclusively to the West or be denoted as ‘western’. Where the difference actually lies, quite simply and frankly, is that there is a conceptual structure inherent to the ancient world, in all its various religions, cultures and authorities, and a conceptual structure that belongs to the new world with all its own various religions, cultures and authorities.

Lamenting for the world of the ancestors turns into an obsessional neurosis

What this means, expressed plainly clearly, is that whenever we determine on replacing ancient political concepts found in Muhammad's Qur’ān – such as the caliphate, the shūrā, the pledging of allegiance, obedience, the flock, apostasy, jizya tax, and the people of the dhimma[12] and other such like political concepts (or to be more specific pre-political concepts) – that belong to the ancient world and which hinder the development of a democratic consciousness or the political values of modernity, we have not dispensed with the word of God by doing this, as many fancy. We have simply decided on distancing ourselves from political exploitation and the ideological instrumentalization of ideas from a text belonging to the ancient world, ideas which have nought but a devotional function.

When we adopt the concepts of political modernity (such as democracy, elections, pluralism, the rotation of power, the Rights of Man and citizenship), we are adopting concepts that belong to the new world, which is our world – whatever those who hate this fact may say. What is needed, rather, is for us to understand that we are children of the new world with all its concepts and values. We cannot today exist in anything other than this world, a world of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, individual freedoms, the separation of powers and the ballot box.

As for the ancient world – the world of pledging allegiance, the religious community, obedience to the ruler and the caliphate – the Qur’ān can put this most eloquently for us:

This is a people that have passed away; they shall have what they earned and you shall have what you earn, and you shall not be called upon to answer for what they did [Qur’ān II,134].


[1] On these two figures see the author’s essay for Almuslih: What is the Qur’ān?

[2] See Glossary under ‘Qadar’.

[3] Dr. Muhammad Shahrour, ، الكتاب والقرآن, Shirkat al-Matbūʽāt lil-Tawzīʽ wal-Nashr, Beirut, 9th Ed. 2009, p.36.

[4] Muhammad ‘Ābid al-Jabrī, مدخل إلى القرآن الكريم , Part 1, Dar al-Nashr al-Maghribiyya, Casablanca, 2006, p.19.

[5] Abū Nasr al-Fārābī,  آراء أهل المدينة الفاض  (‘The Views of the People of the Ideal City’), Intro. By Dr. Albert Nasrī Nādir, Dār al-Mashriq, Beirut 1986, p.116.

[6] Baruch Spinoza, ، رسالة في اللاهوت والسياس (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus), tr. Hasan Hanafī, Dār al-Tanwīr, Beirut, 1st Ed. 2005 p.129.

[7] Op cit. p.148.

[8] See Glossary.

[9] See Glossary.

[10] The psychiatrist Félix Guattari and philosopher Gilles Deleuze have cooperated on a number of works focusing on the nature of knowledge and identity. Their work What is Philosophy? constructs a view of philosophy as based both on experience and a quasi-virtual world. (Ed.)

[11] The citation is taken from Abū al-Baqā’ of Ronda (1204-1285) and his famous nūniyya poem lamenting the loss of several cities in Muslim Spain to the Reconquista.

[12] See Glossary.